U Students Travel to Panama to Teach Orphans to Dance


By Ashley Baker

Molly Elise Cook is a University of Utah student and who was selected to travel to Panama over spring break to teach dance and movement to children who live in orphanages through a program called Movement Exchange.
Here’s her story.
Tell us about your experience with the Movement Exchange program.
I first traveled to Panama as a dance diplomat my sophomore year in 2015. I am now going again this semester.
How did you get involved?
I knew about the program through the School of Dance. Applications are usually accepted every two years for the trip.
Last time I went it was the first time ballet students were able to apply (ballet and modern are pretty separate degree tracks so we have different opportunities). I thought I would give it a shot and apply and I was accepted into the group. At that time I did not really know what I was getting into, but now I know it was one of the best decisions I made at the U. I knew I wanted to go again if the opportunity came, so I am so thankful to be going again.
What kinds of things do you do?
With the Movement Exchange program, students travel abroad to teach dance and spread knowledge to communities that are different than ours. We strive to make dance accessible to everyone and create sustainable dance education. Dance and movement are beneficial to mental and social health, especially when taught to developing children. We collaborate with schools, orphanages and professionals to teach and also learn from them.
Do you receive scholarships or grants for your involvement in the program? 
The group heading to Panama this year received a College of Fine Arts FAF Grant and a grant from the Wheeler Foundation. We also have put our best effort into fundraising, doing bake sales, restaurant takeovers and anything that can help cover our cost to travel. We are thankful to those who support our endeavor!
Do you recommend other students getting involved? If so, why?
This is an amazing opportunity for students because the U represents one of 23 colleges in the US that work with this program. It is great to be able to travel and do what you love while making a difference in the community. It has made me closer to my classmates and helped unite the ballet and modern programs. It may sound cliché, but participating in this program made me realize how passionate I am about dance and that I can use it to make a difference in the world.
What will you be doing in Panama? 
Our days will consist mainly of teaching classes. We will be taking turns and leading a class we plan and organize ourselves. We also have the opportunity to take dance classes while there from local artists. It’s definitely not a relaxing spring break vacation because our group will be working hard and learning daily about the people of Panama and how to give them the best dance experience possible.
How are you feeling about leaving the states and how long will you be gone?
I am beyond excited to go back. We will arrive there this Sunday and stay for a week, teaching Monday to Friday.
I am most nervous about the language barrier. However, you find your own way to communicate; and through dance, it can be easier. Everyone in the group is eager to teach and explore a new culture.
How were you selected to go to Panama? What have you had to do to prepare for your trip?
Everyone in our group had to apply and get accepted to go on the trip. We all have dance backgrounds and an affiliation with the School of Dance.
Once selected, we met periodically to get to know one another and create a game plan. The past few weeks we have coordinated workshops to become even more prepared.
With this, we were given lessons on the Spanish language, the needs of the children we will be in contact with, implicit bias, voluntourism and other topics to help us adjust. Currently, I feel like we are as prepared as we can be.
What is one of your most memorable experiences with this program?
One of the most memorable moments I had on the trip the last time was when a young girl pulled me into a corner to read a book with her. We had some downtime at an orphanage and were playing with the younger children. She then proceeded to teach me Spanish by pointing at images and helping me read correctly.
I was amazed at how we could communicate and how driven she was to have me learn. I want to go back with that same passion and really take the time to make an influence in their lives.
Anything else you want people to know about the Movement Exchange program?
I want people in our community to know that there is more to dance than just a performance. Dance can be used as a tool to help people in need at home and abroad.
I want to always be present in the community and find a way to incorporate dance into the development of that community. It is such a beautiful and unique art form that everyone should be allowed access to and I want to make it possible.